Self Handling in the Southern Ocean

“This article is in the Spring, 2004 issue of Ocean Voyager. Presumably to save space my comments on similar passages by other sailboats were omitted. At the end of the published version they succeeded in mixing up the time for Moitessier’s passage from Tahiti to Cape Horn for our passage from Hobart to Cape Horn. Moitessier was slower, the 5,700 nm trip took 49 days at an average of 4.3 kts. Fiona‘s passage from Hobart to Cape Horn of 5,600 nm actually took 42 days at an average of 5.5 kts.”

It seems in recent years that sailing the Southern Ocean and rounding Cape Horn after a passage has achieved an almost mystical quality; comparable, perhaps, to climbing Mount Everest. Of course, over a thousand climbers have made it to the top of Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary first did it and the bloom is apparently wearing off. Nevertheless, although thousands of sailors have sailed round the Horn in small boats an aura remains. Many books have added to the mystique, but, as often as not, the authors were describing the passage under special circumstances, such as single-handing or racing or crazily enough; both. I recently completed a circumnavigation around the major southern capes aboard my sea-kindly Westsail 42 Fiona with a crew consisting of myself, Bob Bennett and David Pontieri. My intention was to make a passage similar to the old square rigged clipper ships, east about from New York to New York with only a few stops. Our passage through the Southern Ocean began when we left Cape Town and sailed to near 50º S. We made a brief stop at Kerguelen Island (See the article on Desolation Island in Ocean Navigator for Mar/April, 2003) before sailing in the forties to Hobart, Tasmania. From there we sailed to 51º S for a look at Auckland Island and then sailed in the fifties around Cape Horn to Stanley in the Falkland Islands. We stayed in the fifties for a passage to South Georgia and then headed north in the South Atlantic to Brazil.

We carried several books that described similar passages in small boats and it was interesting for us to compare our experiences with theirs. It became clear that sail handling depended very much on the characteristics of the boat and, of course, whether the boat was in a race. For example we had Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth Circles the World, which describes his pioneering single-handed circumnavigation in 1966/67 with only one stop, at Sydney. Although he sailed alone he was racing–against the ghosts of the clipper ships, whose best time he wanted to beat, or at least equal. Gipsy Moth was specially designed for the trip; she was 54 ft long, rigged as a cutter ketch with a canoe stern. She carried 10 sails including a mizzen staysail and 2 large genoa jibs. She was very tender and Chichester frequently changed sails to avoid excessive heel. We also carried Bernard Moitessier’s The First Voyage of the Joshua, the story of the trip he made with his wife from Moorea to the Mediterranean around Cape Horn in 1965/66. Joshua was also a cutter rigged ketch of traditional Colin Archer double-ended design just under 40 ft long with a 7 ft bowsprit. Moitessier carried 7 sails, in his book he constantly complains that even when reefed the sails were too big. The reason is that in his first heavy gale from astern he trailed immense warps; 182 fathoms of rope, 280 lbs of pig iron and an old cargo net. This tactic was following the advice of Vito Dumas, an Argentinean who circumnavigated in the Southern Ocean in the 1940’s. Not surprisingly the boat was sluggish and did not respond well to the helm. When he ultimately cut the whole mess loose he found that the boat was sailing too fast. Neither of these sailors used roller furling, which had probably not reached a sufficient level of reliability at the time of their voyages It was especially interesting to read the largely anecdotal story of the 1996/97 Vendée Globe single handed race written by Derek Lundy entitled Godforsaken Sea. The participants in the Vendée Globe were extreme machines about 60 ft long, lightly built, some had internal water ballast and pivoting keel, all were designed for speed. The message that we got from Lundy’s book is that the tactics of boat handling, and even the impact of the wind and seas on the crew, depend to a large extent on whether one is all-out racing or merely cruising. The race entrants were justifiably nervous in the Southern Ocean; of 16 starters only 6 finished. Two were lucky enough to be rescued under amazing circumstances after suffering capsizes but a Canadian, Gerry Roufs, was lost at sea. In his last message before his disappearance near Cape Horn Roufs wrote, “You’re always under stress in these waters. If you drag things out too long here, you’re sure to come to grief.” Better than anything, this illustrates the difference between racing and cruising: after Fiona rounded the Horn we felt the weather was manageable and pushed on another 1,200 nm east to South Georgia even though we had to deal with considerable floating ice.


Fiona is a cutter rigged sloop of just less than 43 ft with a 4ft bow platform, the hull is of the Colin Archer double ended style but without the outer hung rudder. The jib is on a roller furling gear. We carried 6 sails but we only used 4 in the Southern Ocean: the full main and genoa jib were used only in milder weather further north. Before we left Cape Town we bent on the storm mainsail and set a yankee jib in the groove of the furling gear. The storm main is a loose-footed, battenless sail of about 310 square feet with two reefs and a negative roach. The second reef is very deep so that essentially the sail functions as a storm trysail when that reef is tied in. The yankee has an area of 312 square feet, it can be reefed using the furling gear. The staysail is hanked onto the forestay, it has one set of reefing points and an area of 165 square feet. The staysail is attached to a club footed boom sheeted to a traveler. This arrangement requires the lower piston hanks to be threaded on a jackline; a system that very much complicated reefing the staysail. We also carried a spitfire jib of only 38 square feet that could be hanked onto the forestay above the furled staysail by using a 6ft long tack pennant. The sheets for this sail passes through blocks on deck padeyes placed inside the shrouds. On the assumption that running with jib and staysail would be the most common point of sailing I added a running backstay from the masthead to relieve the strain on the permanent backstay and to provide some security should that stay fail. A second whisker pole with associated mast-mounted padeye and topping lift was also added so that both headsails could be poled out. I assumed that the mainsail would be furled under these circumstances and only one running stay would be needed. In fact, these assumptions were not bourn out in practice.


The normal macroweather pattern in the southern Indian Ocean usually consisted of deep low pressure cells passing south of the boat’s track with associated fronts extending to the north. Typically these fronts passed us every four or five days with the wind shifting from northwest to southwest. To stay on course we were either broad reaching or running, shifting the staysail from the club footed boom to a whisker pole as we adjusted from reaching to running proved to be wet, tedious work on the foredeck. Although I have every admiration for Chichester, who appears to have spent much of his cruise on the foredeck shifting jibs or staysail, that is not my style; I prefer to limit the time on deck in cold seas to the minimum. Thus we evolved a different sailing plan than I had first anticipated; we left the staysail permanently bent onto the club boom but rigged both whisker poles, one on each side. The two sheets of the yankee were led through snatch blocks on each pole so that the sail could be sheeted to either port or starboard with ease. When running the yankee was poled to windward and we set the mainsail to lee, usually with a reef tied in. The staysail was sheeted amidships. The main boom was connected to a preventer that ran to a snatch block on the bow platform, from there the line was taken to the rope drum on the anchor winch where it was bowsed tight. The preventer is made in two parts; the aft end is shackled to the boom and terminates with an eye. The second part is connected to the eye with a snap shackle and led forward. In this way we could always hook up the preventer, even if the aft end of the boom is well out over the side of the boat and out of reach. This wing and wing arrangement proved very stable, the boat showed no tendency to broach and we left steering up to the Aries self-steerer virtually all the time. There were occasional gybes, of course, but the preventer kept the boom in check and it was up to the person on watch to hand -steer for a few minutes to bring the boat back on course. When shifting the point of sailing from a run to a reach we simply furled the jib, dropped the windward sheet block on the pole using the trigger and then reset the jib to leeward. The staysail sheet was eased and the staysail vanged by a four-part tackle connected to a bail on the staysail boom. In strong winds we furled the jib and reached under staysail and main, both reefed as appropriate. When shifting from port tack to starboard tack or vice versa we always gybed the boat; we found early on that tacking the boat in the seas commonly found down there was virtually impossible. To gybe we furled the jib, fell off the wind and moved the preventer to the other side. The main boom at this stage was controlled by the sheet and a four-part tackle on a vang strap. Then in a coordinated fashion we sheeted in the main as the boat was steered downwind until the boom was pressed over, the sheet was eased and the preventer re-rigged.


The local weather usually varied considerably from day to day, probably due to minor low pressure cells that complicated the macroweather systems mentioned above. For this reason the daily weather forecasts we received from radio amateurs in South Africa and Australia were usually wrong. That is not to say that the weather was always bad; the logbook records some pleasant sailing days and for one five-day period when we were sailing in the South Pacific Ocean at about 54ºS the winds were so light we never tied in a reef. But that was the exception, on average we spent about two hours a day on deck shifting or reefing sail. If the wind was behind the mast we tried to keep our speed between 6 and 7.5 knots by reefing or even furling the main. The higher limit was imposed to minimize gear failure due to wear and tear; more on that topic later. If the wind was well forward of the mast we would try to maintain course for wind speeds up to 35 knots, higher than that we usually hove-to with the staysail backed and the main reefed. For wind speeds up to 50 knots we tied the second reef in the mainsail and sometimes reefed the staysail. On a few occasions we bent on the spitfire jib.

Once in the South Atlantic Ocean in the 40’s the wind suddenly increased so quickly to 60 knots that we only had time to furl the sails and lay a-hull, but normally we tried to keep some sail flying. When reefing the mainsail we first furled the jib and then hardened the mainsheet so that the boat jogged 5 or 6 points off the wind. We always tied the reef with the boat on port tack as the cheek blocks and cleats for the reefing lines were on that side of the boom. Next we dropped the halyard, tied down the forward cringle and hardened the reefing line. We then used a short line round the boom to hold down the aft cringle and tied the reefing points under the foot of the sail. The helmsman then let the boat fall off wind to gain speed and rounded up so that the main luffed and the halyard could be raised. If we were originally sailing on starboard tack we would gybe and then reset the jib and proceed on our way. If all went well and we did not foul a halyard the whole procedure took 15 to 20 minutes.


The wear and tear on the boat gear during a voyage of about 32,000 nm, about half of which was in the Southern Ocean, was simply enormous. The sails and associated gear in particular took a beating. Small tears and seams becoming unstitched were common for all sails. These were repaired as soon as practical using an old Read sewing machine that we carried on board. We glued on patches with contact cement and then stitched them. The result did not look too pretty but the repairs were strong and held until we got to the next port with a sail-maker. When we were hove-to with a reefed staysail backed to weather in a gale of 40 kts gusting to 50 kts a heavy wave swept over the bow and burst the staysail, causing a ‘T’ shaped tear several feet long in each direction. This was serious; we did not have a spare for that sail and it was a workhorse. It took us five hours to repair the sail but we were able to bend it on again by midnight of the same day. The staysail hanks tended to wear through due to the rubbing action on forestay and several had to be replaced. The grommets to which they were clipped also fretted the sail-cloth, which had to be reinforced when a new grommet was installed. On the mainsail the webbing holding the slides frequently chafed and had to be replaced; the slides themselves also fractured. About half-a-dozen times the jib sheets chafed so badly that they had to be replaced, occasionally they broke under load which resulted in a few minutes of feverish activity until the jib could be brought under control. One bad day when we were about as far from land as it is possible to be; 2,500 nm west of Cape Horn and 1,500 nm south of Pitcairn Island, we noticed that the lower unit of the jib furler had separated into two pieces and the foil assembly and jib were riding up the headstay. We furled the sail with some difficulty and winched David to the masthead so that he could push the wrapstop to the top of the foil and thus limit vertical motion. A call to the service center on the satellite phone confirmed our suspicion that it could not be repaired on board. However, the company was nice enough to replace the unit free of charge, but it was several months before we could actually pick it up.


It goes without saying that you are far from help in the Southern Ocean; when gear fails you must repair it yourself. The skills, tools and raw materials to do this must be onboard. For the sails we carried a sewing machine, a grommet punch, spare Dacron cloth, webbing and slides, spare sheets and replacement piston hanks.

Gipsy Moth sailed 6,600 nm to the Horn from Australia in 50 days; an average of 132 nm/day or 5.5 kts. Moitessier sailed Joshua south from Moorea until he hit the 40’s, where he stayed until edging down to 56ºS to round the Horn. The 5,700 nm passage took 49 days; an average of 116 nm/day or 4.3 kts. When leaving Australia Fiona drove south of New Zealand and stayed in the 50’s to the Horn, a route that shaved a 1000 nm off the distance compared to Chichester who elected to go north of New Zealand. The 5,600 nm passage took 42 days; an average of 133 nm/day or 5.5 kts. Christophe Auguin won the Vendée Globe with a time of just under 106 days; an average of 245 nm/day or 10.2 kts for the race; in the Southern Ocean his daily average was probably higher. For example, on one unbelievable day when west of Cape Leeuwin he covered 374 nm at an average speed of 15.6 kts.

Although there is always the risk of a catastrophic wave or storm in the Southern Ocean it is clear that the danger is greatly magnified if the sailor is pushing his boat to the limit. With a sturdy sailboat, properly handled, and a cautious approach to heavy weather I would classify the passage as only fairly strenuous cruising. But why do it? Well, why do people climb Mount Everest?


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